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With power out, keep patience in reserve

Up to 1.1-million Florida homes and businesses and about 500,000 Tampa Bay area customers lost power Sunday as Hurricane Jeanne cut across Florida, and electric utilities officials warned it could take longer to restore power this time around.

With the fourth hurricane to hit the state in six weeks, utilities said supplies of replacement parts are spread out around the state, and their work force is spread thin. These factors translate into probable delays in bringing power back to homes.

"We're asking for customer patience," said St. Petersburg-based Progress Energy spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs. "This was a major storm, and it affected a lot of service. People need to be prepared to go several days without power."

Progress is contacting 221 utilities in 48 states to find workers available to repair damage in its service area, Jacobs said, and is for the first time considering flying in repair crews who usually drive in on their own trucks.

Those workers would use Progress vehicles while the utility's own workers sleep. Meanwhile, trucks for those out-of-state workers would be shipped in.

"We are stretched the same way everybody else involved in getting people's lives back to normal is stretched right now," said Armando Olivera, president of Florida Power and Light, the state's largest power company. "It's an unfortunate reality."

At one point Sunday, 248,542 customers in Pinellas, 188,000 in Hillsborough, 78,506 in Pasco, 18,530 in Citrus and 30,000 in Hernando counties were without power.

Widespread outages also were reported in St. Lucie, Martin and Broward counties, and a handful of problems existed in Miami-Dade County _ 100 miles south of the spot where Jeanne made landfall.

And for customers, the bad news may get worse as utilities look to replenish exhausted storm funds used to pay for repairs, making rate increases a possibility, some utilities say.

Florida Power had a $345-million storm fund entering the hurricane season, and company spokesman Bill Swank said it may already be depleted.

"Hurricane Charley ate up half of that," Swank said. "We don't have all the numbers for Frances, and it looks like that cost even more. At some point, we have to pay for this down the road. Clearly, our customers are where we get our revenue . . . and we may have to look at a rate increase."

Progress Energy officials said they were unsure whether rates would have to be raised to replenish its exhausted $40.9-million storm reserve.

"We don't know yet," Jacobs said. "That's one of the options."

In some of the harder-hit places, restoring power may take up to three weeks, Florida Power reported, though such delays aren't expected in Tampa Bay. Most customers will see power restored fairly quickly, though utilities say delays are inevitable.

"Restoration could take a little longer this time," said Ross Bannister, a spokesman for Tampa Electric Co. "It might take us an extra day or two to fully mobilize our resources. We are down in the rabbit hole with this thing. It's a remarkable string of storms."

There were no precise estimates on when repairs would be completed in Tampa Bay until power crews surveyed damage. And through most of Sunday, many line crews with their large bucket trucks were hampered by dangerous winds and unable to begin repairs.

Mobilizing line workers, including those on loan from utilities in other states, is expected to prove the biggest challenge for this storm. Many workers are still in the Florida Panhandle, repairing Hurricane Ivan damage. Some crews had only recently finished Hurricane Frances work.

On Saturday, 81,515 homes and businesses in Florida's Panhandle were still without power.

"Crews are definitely stretched thin," said Mary Lou Kromer, a spokeswoman for Florida Power. "It's going to be a challenge."

Some residents, meanwhile, made do with life without electricity.

About two hours after a 2:20 p.m. power outage in St. Petersburg's Snell Isle, George Orsi prepared for a possible extended period of darkness. He put together a Coleman lantern and took stock of the ice he had prepared in old milk bottles. He also had a battery-powered radio.

If the power was not restored quickly, he and his wife planned to stay with friends who had power. "If it lasts more than 12 hours, we're in trouble," said Orsi, a St. Raphael's Catholic School teacher.

At Chuck Johnson's house in South Tampa, a tree limb fell on a power line about 10 a.m. Sunday. He's been in the dark since. "Just like that, the power went off, never to return," he said.

But he's not complaining. He had not lost power at all this hurricane season. His goal now? To find a way to open the automatic garage door.

Not even utility officials were immune. Rob Williams, an energy efficiency specialist for Progress Energy, lost power in his Pinellas Point home. Williams will be on storm duty today in Trenton, near Gainesville, making sure line crews have food and lodging.

The power loss didn't deter Williams. He watched the Tampa Bay Bucs game Sunday night with friends.

Times staff writers Jim Ross, Bill Varian, Jon Wilson, Waveney Ann Moore and Sherri Day contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.